Welcome to the first post of Silence in the Tortured Soul, book eleven in the Operation Quickline series. The KGB has infiltrated a group protesting a satellite launch. Lisa and Sid need to find out how to protect their friends Frank and Esther – and to train them as their new recruits.
“Nicholas Flaherty!” I snapped.
I wasn’t angry enough to use all four of his names, but I was getting close, and my thirteen-year-old son knew it.
“I told you yesterday. Your father and I are going out to dinner tonight, so no friends over.”
“But where else are we gonna go?” Nick’s brilliant blue eyes began to fill behind his glasses.
He’s also got dark wavy hair and a dimple in his chin. Normally he’s happy and energetic. And, I had to admit, I sympathized with his plight. His buddy Rob’s mom thought the girls chasing her son, mine, and Lety Sandoval’s were simply hilarious and cute. Lety was praying that her son Josh would show more interest in girls, period, which is why she wasn’t going to do anything to stop the little tarts. Our place was the only safe house the boys had.
“I understand.” I sighed. “But I know darned well Josh’s mom will not let you three stay here by yourselves and I’m pretty sure Rob’s mom won’t, either.”
In truth, I was pretty sure Rob’s mom, Clarissa, would. Clarissa Lopresti was convinced that her darling boy could do no wrong, never mind that I’d seen him do plenty. Rob Tolmann wasn’t a bad kid, just not very disciplined. Lety, on the other hand, was pretty realistic about Josh and his younger brothers, and agreed with me that judgment was not Josh’s strong suit yet. Nor was it Nick’s. Nick was (and is) bright and capable, which meant he often overestimated his ability to handle things. Come to think of it, that was the same problem Josh had. Between them and Rob, they were not a good combination for extended time without some sort of supervision.
“What are we gonna do?” Nick wailed. “Those girls won’t let up.”
“I know,” I said with my teeth gritted. “But your father and I cannot re-arrange our entire lives just so you and your friends don’t have to deal with an annoyance. And, yes, I agree those girls are annoying. But they’re not trying to shoot you, Nick.”
Nick’s groan was both defeated and defiant. There was that other perspective that Nick’s father and I could put on things that made things like persistent pre-teen girls seem trivial.
Within the structures of the FBI and the CIA are several shadow organizations so secret that mostly only their members know they exist. Nick’s father, Sid, and I work for one called Operation Quickline, which is under the FBI. Our primary mission is to pass information around, but we also do investigations and other chores that come up. Sid and I had also recently been promoted to a supervisory position as a floater team. Nick knew his dad and I were spies, but not much more than that even though we were training him. Nick had seen some of how dangerous things could get for us. So, when I pointed out that the girls that he and his buddies were so desperate to avoid were not shooting at him, he knew I was not exaggerating.
“Look,” I said. “We’ll find some other time to do a sleep-over or two. But at some point, Nick, you guys are going to have to learn how to deal with girls, including annoying persistent ones.”
“Even Dad says they’re worse than the ones he used to know.”
“I know and I understand, but you are still going to have to learn how to deal with it.”
Another defeated and defiant groan escaped my son and he slumped off to his room, presumably to call his friends and commiserate.
I went back to my desk. As aggravating as Nick’s problem was, it was the least of my worries at that moment. Sid and I were also freelance writers for magazines, which was our cover career. Sid, until the year before, had been doing a column reviewing various singles’ hot spots for a magazine aimed at swinging adults. The owner and editor, Hattie Mitchell, had given Sid the column as a way of keeping in touch with Sid and with her brother, who was in hiding.
However, almost eighteen months before, Sid had given up sleeping around and hanging around singles’ hot spots and surrendered the column. Hattie was not about to let Sid or me go that easily, at least not as writers. Being the dilettante she was, she’d also bought another more mainstream women’s magazine and had asked us to be the news and lifestyle editors. I suspected that Hattie, who was also up to her backside in various classified activities thanks to the defense plant that she also owned, and who was one of our liaisons, may have been persuaded to keep Sid and me on. But that was one of those things that you just didn’t do in the spy business. You didn’t ask without a good reason, and I didn’t have one yet.
The editor position meant that Sid and I could give up much of the freelancing, which made life easier in that we had a more predictable schedule to work around and didn’t have to worry about writing work suddenly getting hot when our spy business was. That we also had relentlessly regular deadlines made life a touch more difficult. It was also early July and time to plan for the magazine’s Christmas issue. So, not only did I have the October issue to worry about, I had to find and assign two articles for the holidays. The queries (or letters offering articles) that I’d received had not been very promising.
I went back to sulking over queries. I must have gotten more absorbed than I would have thought, because some time later, I looked up and there was Sid, my darling and relatively new spouse, leaning in the doorway. He’s not a large man, just three inches taller than me, and I’m average. Sid is how Nick got his bright blue eyes, dark, wavy hair, and cleft chin, although I would put good money up that Nick is going to be taller than his father.
Sid smiled softly at me, obviously thinking about something romantic and sexy. I kind of felt bad that I was in such a lousy mood.
“So, did the drop get off okay?” I asked.
“Naturally.” He straightened, then walked over and leaned his backside against my desk next to me. “I take it the offerings on Christmas articles have been a little demoralizing.”
I rolled my eyes. “What hasn’t been today? Christmas queries, pre-teen angst…”
“What’s got Nick upset now?”
Long John Silver, a gray one-eyed cat with a mangled ear, silently jumped to the top of my desk and began rubbing up against Sid. She’s very partial to him. She’s also the mother of our other two cats.
“It’s the same thing. The girls. He, Rob, and Josh want to spend the night here and I had to say no. We’re going out to dinner tonight.”
Sid chuckled as he petted Long John. “Speaking of demoralizing.”
I sighed. It wasn’t going out to dinner. It was that we were meeting yet another total stranger to create a visible reason we knew this person, as opposed to the secret reason we did. The secret reason was Quickline and the total stranger was Desmond Moore. He was the last operative on our line that we hadn’t met. Most of the others had been very nice, so I wasn’t entirely dreading dinner. I just wasn’t looking forward to it. Fortunately, Sid understood.
Then Sid’s smile got that cute, but really hot bent.
I had to smile. “You’re not thinking about dinner, are you?”
His grin got even hotter. “How about a nice little afternoon break? Might cheer you up some.”
“It would.” I bit my lip. “But Nick’s home.”
“We go to our room, then.”
“And we have work to do.”
“We can’t do anything about those queries until Monday at the soonest.”
I felt myself weakening. “What about not developing bad habits?”
“We are, essentially, working tonight, so a longer afternoon break is in order.”
He knew I’d say yes. Neither of us can say no to the other, at least not where making love is concerned.
I briefly debated letting Nick know that his dad and I were about to get otherwise occupied, but Nick usually figured that out. One of the many crosses he had to bear was that his parents were, um, active that way. [What’s the big deal? We love sex. That it occasionally caused the kid embarrassment, well, hey, as crosses go, that one was pretty lightweight. – SEH]
“So?” I asked as we mounted the stairs to our bedroom. “What brought this little mood on?”
Sid squeezed my shoulders. “Admittedly, it doesn’t take much when it comes to you. But I was thinking about the potential damper on activities this weekend and am hoping that if we get a little overactive now, it will be easier to deal with later.”
I winced. The next day, Sid, Nick, and I were headed up to South Lake Tahoe to spend the Fourth of July weekend with my parents. That my maternal grandmother, Grandma Caulfield, had moved in with them was the complicating factor.
Okay. I understand. However happy some people are that your sex life is going well, almost all those same people do not want actual, audial evidence. Even Sid doesn’t want to listen to other people having sex, although it does not embarrass him. The problem is, Sid and I get, well, noisy. We really do try to keep it down, but we don’t always succeed. If we were not going to worry my parents or offend Grandma Caulfield (who takes a very dim view of sex), there was either not going to be any sex at all (not likely, nor welcome from Sid’s and my perspective) or we were going to have to find some way to keep the noise level down. That was not going to be easy.
I wasn’t going to tell Sid that his idea of getting us fully satiated didn’t stand a chance in Hades of working. And, I suppose, there was always the chance it would work. In any case, the interlude did a lot to improve my mood.
Afterward, Sid did his second shave of the day. He usually shaves twice because his beard comes in fast and dark. It was also late enough that I got out a nice dress made from a cotton lawn print from Liberty of London and Sid put on a lovely Italian cut light gray suit with a snowy-white shirt and a tie made from yet another Liberty print. The dress I wore featured a dark green print with gray and pink. The tie happened because I’d made a blouse from the other print and there was still extra fabric, but not enough to make anything else with it.
I called Clarissa Lopresti to tell her how sorry I was that Rob couldn’t come over. It was a defensive maneuver, since Rob had been known to tell his mom that Sid or I had said something was okay when we hadn’t, and Clarissa would not believe us that it was Rob who had fibbed. Lety already knew to verify anything the boys said. It’s not that Nick or Josh were prone to lying, but they could come up with some elegant twists on the truth.
Nick got the usual lecture about no friends over (and thanks to the house’s security, no way was he going to be able to hide any), no leaving, any long-distance phone calls came out of his allowance, and only page us in an emergency. Technically, the pagers Sid and I had were only for Quickline business. Everybody used them for personal purposes as well.
We got to the restaurant in Westwood in plenty of time. Better yet, Desmond Moore was there waiting for us. I was happy that we’d already met some years before. Desmond was a youngish Black man, about medium height with dark-colored skin and well-built shoulders. We’d met on a case in Tahoe. He’d been a bartender in one of the casinos.
“I’m writing software now,” he told us after we’d ordered. “I mean, I always had, but now it’s a visible job.”
“So, how did you get transferred to us?” Sid asked. “Weren’t you with Eleven-B or something?”
Desmond snorted. “Yeah, that was a kind of scut-work division the Company wasn’t too excited about. They folded it right after I transferred out to work for Congressman O’Connor directly. When this position opened up about eight months ago, I jumped at it.”
“To a lowly courier position?” Sid asked.
“To part-time.” Desmond laughed. “Guess who my primary client is for my software business?”
I made a face. “The Company?”
The Company was what we called the CIA when we weren’t using ruder terms. We paused as the waiter brought our food.
“Yep. The Company.” Desmond shook his head and dug in. “They can’t keep me busy enough for full-time. But even with a full-time gig, they still expect me to write software for them on demand. Not enough people are cleared on our level who can do what I do.” He shrugged. “That’s where most of the work’s going to be in a few years. Given what spy satellites can do these days, they won’t need nearly as many folks on the ground.”
“They’ll need some folks,” said Sid.
“Yeah. But which is easier? Send in a team to scour the countryside for whatever nuclear arms plant there might be? Or just fly over and take a picture? The hard part is getting the pictures back to earth, but they may have gotten that one beat.” Desmond grinned. “There just may happen to be a new bird going up this summer that I have a little payload on.”
I frowned and looked at Sid. “We had heard there was one they were trying to keep extra quiet.”
In fact, we had reason to believe that the Cat’s Paw project was one our good friend Esther Nguyen was working on. Esther’s an engineer for a defense plant in the South Bay. She’d never let on. However, since Sid and I had gotten promoted, we’d been getting a lot more information about who was doing what top secret work. Not only did we know that Esther’s company was coordinating all the other companies working on the satellite, Sid and I had figured out from Esther’s work ID that she was in the division doing the coordinating.
Sid’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Desmond. “And why are you sharing your involvement with it?”
Desmond shifted. “That. I was in DC the other day and met up with Congressman O’Connor.”
“Who knows that you’re on our line.” I nodded. “What does he want?”
“Apparently, there’s a leak on the project.” Desmond held up his hands as Sid and I groaned. “You won’t be going undercover. But our buddy Dale wanted me to give you a heads-up that I’m involved on the project. He said that probably all three of us will get pulled in on the case, but wasn’t sure how yet.”
I glanced at Sid, who shrugged.
“It would make sense,” Sid said. “We’re the closest people they’ve got. But that will have to wait until next week.”
“We’re going up to Tahoe for the weekend,” I told Desmond with a slight sigh of disgust.
“That’s right. Your folks are up there.” Desmond looked at me. “Bad blood?”
“No.” I smiled and sighed. “My folks are fine. It’s just that visiting them is not the only item on the agenda, so to speak.”
Sid chuckled. “Lisa’s got her high school reunion.”
“It’s the Fourth of July.” Desmond looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded. “So, which hotel wants to make the locals happy and shore up its catering business?”
I’m from South Lake Tahoe, which is on the California side of the border with Nevada. But it’s a major tourist area and Fourth of July weekend is one of the biggest tourist weekends of the year.
Now, you might wonder why anybody from our area would schedule an event on one of the biggest tourist weekends of the year. The reality was that there was no good weekend. Tahoe is one of those rare areas where the tourist season is year-round. Fall tends to be slower, but most people can’t travel after school starts and a lot of my class had left the area. And, not surprisingly, there are very few conventions and other large parties requiring big spaces and catering on holiday weekends. So, the hotels are more willing to do something like a reunion than you might think. Add that many of us had family who could put us up, no matter how booked up all the local places were, and Fourth of July wasn’t such a bad option after all.
“Anyway,” I continued. “I’m not really looking forward to it, but I told a friend of mine that I’d go. And I have a couple friends I’d like to see again.”
Desmond grinned. “Yeah. I know how that goes.”
Dinner went on pleasantly. We stayed somewhat later than we’d planned. But eventually, we sent Desmond on his way and went back to the house. Nick was still up. Well, it wasn’t that late. We sent him to bed and went upstairs, ourselves.
The next morning, we got up around seven-thirty to go running at eight. That was one of several blessings that being married seemed to have brought. It would probably be more interesting if the later running time had been the result of a knock-down, drag it all out fight. But it wasn’t. Nick and I had merely asked Sid shortly after school had let out why it was so important to run at six a.m. rather than later? Sid had conceded that the early hour was his particular preference but pointed out that he didn’t want to be waiting too long for breakfast (he didn’t want to run after eating), which was fair. So, Nick and I agreed to get up at seven-thirty, which was a heck of a lot better than five-thirty.
Nick and I had also convinced Sid that he’d better have a really, really good reason before scheduling a flight that would require us to get up before the crack of dawn. Sid had agreed it would be appropriate to check with me, specifically, before making the reservation. Sid is a morning person. Neither Nick nor I are. We’re working on the compromises.
We got into Tahoe in mid-afternoon. Sid rented a car, and we got to my parents’ place, at the back of their resort there, before three o’clock. Daddy was helping the desk clerk down at the main lodge get folks checked in. I offered to lend a hand, but Mama refused to let me.
She’s a small woman, as pert and lively as a bird. Crossing her was not usually in one’s best interest, however. Grandma Caulfield was in the living room. She was about as tall as my mother, with considerably more rolls about her waist.
Sid and I are well off. Sid had gotten an inheritance some years before and had bettered it several times over. A year and a half before, we had formed a business partnership and mingled our assets. That last part meant nothing to my grandmother. That Sid had money did.
You see, I had done what any right-thinking young woman would do. I had held out for the guy with the cash. That Sid and I happened to be crazy in love with each other went right past Grandma. Marriage was about bettering yourself economically and I had done that with a hey nonny. Which meant I was Grandma’s golden girl.
So, Grandma was particularly happy to see me. My parents were, too, but they’re always happy to see me. We had a lovely evening, with Sid playing the piano, then all of us playing cutthroat Monopoly. Nick won that one.
The only problem was the next afternoon, I got the feeling there was some dross getting in the way of me as Grandma’s golden girl.
“What’s going on with Grandma?” I asked Mama as we gathered flatware and the tablecloth for the picnic table out back next to the barbecue where Daddy had some pork shoulder cooking very, very slowly.
Mama sighed. “Do you really want to know?”
Her eyes flitted down to my tummy and suddenly I knew.
I sighed. “She does know that Sid and I can’t get pregnant, right?”
Mama winced. “I tried to tell her. It’s not the sort of thing that makes sense to her, though.”
“Well, it’s got to be obvious that we’re making an effort.”
“Good lord, Lisle! I asked you to keep it down.”
Lisle is my other grandmother’s name. She’s German, and I was given the American version. But my parents frequently used the German version when they talked to me.
“We did.” I flushed a little. “We just may have made a little noise, and that’s all to the better. She can’t fault us, or you, if a baby doesn’t happen.”
Mama sighed. “You know how she feels about sex.”
“I know. But it’s going to be hard to make a baby if we aren’t having any. Even she knows that.”
“There is that.” Mama sighed. “Just don’t go too crazy tonight, will you?”
“I’ll do my best.”
Later, we went down to the lakefront to watch fireworks. Nick had a blast and talked my parents and Grandma into buying him every snack we came across, and some of them twice. We had one awkward moment when the D.J. playing the music for the fireworks display asked all the veterans in the audience to stand and be acknowledged.
“Sid,” Mama asked. “You’re a veteran. You can stand.”
“And I will not,” Sid replied.
Grandma looked at him. “Why, on earth, not? You oughta be proud of your service.”
“I am not proud of the two worst years of my life,” Sid said quietly.
Mama nodded and sighed, but Grandma clearly did not understand.
“Sid—” Grandma began.
“Mama,” my mother cut in. “Let him alone. He’s entitled to feel however he does.”
Grandma snorted but let it go, and I was profoundly grateful.
Later, Sid and I did our best not to get too noisy. However, Grandma got the message that we were trying to procreate, which did better her mood a little. At least, she had Nick to cheer her up.